The Brothers Who Busted Philly Unions. For Good.

Brutish threats, expletive-heavy protests, oil poured at construction-site entrances–for years, Philly unions have used intimidation and bully tactics to protect their power. Then two young developers set up cameras and a website, and set in motion the most dramatic power shift the city has seen in generations.

In the coming months, it seems unlikely that anyone’s behavior will change. Politicians, our major developers and the Trades will operate as normal, even as the ground around them has already shifted.

It’s a change Matt Pestronk announces, inadvertently, when he arrives at the Goldtex site in September, a few days after the protesters departed. “Holy shit!” he exclaims. “Wow!”

Directly in front of him, some 20 yards away, sits a hulking industrial truck pouring freshly mixed concrete into the old factory’s basement. “We’ve been trying to get this for months,” muses Matt. “We get this deal with the unions, and now? It’s here.”

In the meantime, the Pestronks purchased two small mixers of their own—a process that took five times as long and cost 1.5 times as much. “Do you believe this?” Matt says when he sees his brother.

The truck might seem the unions’ version of an olive branch—a two-ton behemoth churning peace. But behind the scenes, says Matt, the Trades still wage war. Chased away by cameras, court orders and bad publicity, the unions now call vendors and pretend to be the Pestronks: “They’re saying stuff like, ‘We’re sorry, we’re not going to be able to pay you.’”

This, too, is an old-school labor tactic. But the Pestronks aren’t upset. The Trades traditionally chase developers away from non-union labor by threatening them with complications like extra expenses for security to combat protesters and delays from blocked deliveries. But the Pestronks are showing that beating the unions costs less than acquiescence. “We’re saving millions doing it this way,” Michael Pestronk says, “even if we have to go back to mixing our own concrete.”

The upshot is that this story’s unanswered questions—like what will happen on the Pestronks’ next job—aren’t as important as they appear. Think of it this way: Does anyone really remember what J. Leon Altemose did after he opened the suburbs to non-union contractors?

There is a desperation about the unions now. Just before deadline, electricians boss Johnny Dougherty finally weighed in, saying, among other things, “I’d be afraid to move into those [Goldtex] apartments … because there will be ongoing protests after they open the place.”

This is detente? But such rage might only mark the dying of the light.

The Pestronks may already be entering rarefied air, their primary importance symbolic. “I think the Philadelphia market is sitting there on the table,” says McMahon, the contractor and board member from ABC. “If the Goldtex site is a success, I think it will send a message that all that’s needed is a strong, willing owner, and you can build in Philadelphia without the unions. It doesn’t really matter what the Pestronks do next, because they already set out a template.”

Those videos, published online, now need only inspire imitators—other developers interested in quelling the unions’ most aggressive intimidation tactics. As a result, Philadelphia is at a tipping point—teetering on the verge of its own Arab Spring.

On its face, any analogy with recent revolutions in the Middle East might seem overstated. There is less at stake in Philadelphia—no actual dictators to overthrow. But the Trades have long served as a kind of shadow government, picking many of our leaders for us and even determining what we can build. In these terms, any dollar the Trades lose is a dollar less they can use to buy political heft. Any movement that deprives them of power is re­volutionary—opening new channels by which Philadelphia might grow its economy and choose its elected officials. And this city’s revolution may well move in the same way that change came to the Middle East, one domino toppling into the next, one non-union job leading to another.

The victory for open-shop contractors, it seems, is either already won or startlingly close. The only question is if they’re willing to claim it—to push beyond the victory the Pestronks say they never intended to achieve. All that’s needed now is for a specific moment to become crystallized as part of this city’s history: the stunning, fleeting vision of two young Virginians who not only stood up to the city’s Building Trades, but put themselves in a position, one fall morning, at the tail end of war, to gloat.

“Tell me,” says Matt Pestronk, grinning as he stands beside his brother, cement pouring into the basement of their open-shop w­orksite. “Do we look like we’ve lost?”

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  • bill turner

    This union is breaking law that are on the books to protect the American citizen. This is not just harassment. How can this one law override all of the other laws on the book. Why can’t they use the tapes to pick out individuals that are committing these acts and have them arrested. This law may protect the Union as a whole but how can it protect the individual braking the other laws.

  • Sue

    I don’t like the fact that the Pestronks give the unions a last look at the bids…this hurts the private contractors and gives the unions an unfair advantage.